INTRODUCTIONPrint This Page.
IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTANDING OF THE BOOK
The content of the following pages is the substance of a number of talks to my younger fellow workers during conferences held recently in Shanghai and Hankow. When the addresses were given, the present book was not in view, but only my immediate audience; and the fact that the messages were intended for the instruction of my young colleagues accounts for their intensely practical nature, and for the simplicity of the style adopted. At these two conferences we sought in the first place to examine the teaching of God's Word concerning His churches and His work, and in the second place to review our past missions in the light of our findings.1
The talks proved of value to my younger brethren, and, as longhand notes were taken, the messages were shared with others. This resulted in many requests that the addresses be put into book form. As the conferences were attended chiefly by my younger fellow workers, I felt at liberty to instruct and counsel them, and to discuss quite freely a number of intimate and rather delicate matters. Had the addresses been intended for a wider audience, or for publication, I should have felt obliged to omit many matters that were mentioned, and to speak in an altogether different strain. I naturally hesitated when the suggestion was made to publish them, but the Lord made it clear that that was His mind, so I have no option but to acquiesce. I questioned the wisdom of preserving the original style of the addresses, with their bits of "elder-brotherly" counsel and their distinct personal strain; but as a number of friends testified to special help received through the more personal parts, I realized that the book would lose its greatest value if those were eliminated. Therefore, though I send the addresses forth somewhat revised, they still remain, both in matter and style, very much as they were when originally delivered.
We trust the readers of this book will bear in mind that its messages, as originally given, were never meant for them. They were intended exclusively for the inner circle of my most intimate associates in the work, but by request we share our findings with the wider circle of all our brethren. The book is something private made public; something originally intended for the few now extended to the many; so we trust our readers will pardon anything that seems unsuited to the wider public.
We should like to point out here the place of the teachings of this book in the great body of divine truth, for the former have spiritual value only as they are held in relation to the latter. During the past eighteen years, the Lord has led us through different experiences in order that we might learn a little of the principle as well as the fact of the cross and resurrection, and learn something of the Christ-life, the lordship of Jesus, the corporate life of the Body, the ground of the kingdom of God, and His eternal purpose. It is natural, therefore, that these things have been the burden of our ministry. But God's wine must have a wineskin to contain it. In the divine pattern, nothing is left for man to decide. God Himself has provided the best wineskin for His wine, which will contain and preserve it without loss, hindrance, or misrepresentation. He has shown us His wine, but He has shown us His wineskin also.
Our work, throughout the past years, has been according to certain definite principles; but never until now have we tried to define or teach them. We have sought rather, in the power of the Spirit, to stress those truths which are so dear to our hearts and which, we believe, have more direct bearing on the spiritual life of the believer and the eternal purpose of God. But the practical outworking of those truths in the Lord's service is by no means unimportant. Without that, everything is in the realm of theory, and spiritual development is impossible. So we would seek, by the grace of God, not only to pass on His good wine, but also the wineskin He has provided for its preservation. The truths set forth in this book must therefore be regarded in relation to those taught throughout the eighteen years of our ministry, and as the sequence, not the introduction, to them.
Within the scope of these pages, it has been impossible to deal with all the questions relating to the subject of the book. Some I have already dealt with elsewhere, and others I hope to deal with at a later date. The title of the book explains its nature. It is not a treatise on missionary methods, but a review of our past work in the light of God's will as we have discovered it in His Word. The Lord had most graciously led us by His Spirit in our past service for Him, but we wanted to be clear as to the foundations upon which all divine work should rest. I realized that the primary need of my younger brethren was to be led of the Spirit and to receive revelation from Him, but I could not ignore their need of a solid scriptural basis for all their ministry. Therefore, together we talked freely of what we had been doing and how we had been doing it, and sought to compare our work and methods with what God had set before us in His Word. We examined the scriptural reasons for the means we employed, and the scriptural justification for the end we pursued; and we made a note of various lessons we had learned by observation as well as by experience. There was no thought of criticizing the labors of others, or even of making any suggestion to them how the work of God ought to be conducted; we were merely seeking to learn from God's Word, from experience, and from observation, how to conduct the work in the days to come, so that we might be workmen "approved to God."
The book is written from the standpoint of a servant looking from the work towards the churches. It does not deal with the specific ministry to which we believe the Lord has called us, but only with the general principles of the work; nor does it deal with "the church, which is His Body," but with the local churches and their relation to the work. The book does not touch the principles of the work, or the life of the churches; it is only a review of our missions, as the title suggests.
The truths referred to in this book have been gradually learned and practiced during the past years. Numerous adjustments have been made as greater light has been received, and if we remain humble, and God still shows us mercy, we believe there will be further adjustments in the future. The Lord has graciously given us a number of associates in the work, all of whom have been sent forth on the basis mentioned in this book, and through their labors numerous churches have been established in different parts of China. Though conditions are vastly different in these many churches, and the believers connected with them differ greatly too—in background, education, social standing, and spiritual experience—yet we have found that if, under the absolute lordship of Jesus, we come to see the heavenly pattern of church formation and government, then the scriptural methods are both practicable and fruitful.
While the book itself may seem to deal with the technical side of Christianity, let us emphasize here that we are not aiming at mere technical correctness. It is spiritual reality we are after. But spirituality is not a matter of theory; it always issues in practice; and it is with spirituality in its practical out-working that this book deals.
It is wearisome to me, if not actually repulsive, to talk with those who aim at perfect outward correctness, while they care little for that which is vital and spiritual. Missionary methods, as such, do not interest me at all. In fact, it is a deep grief to meet children of God who know practically nothing of the hatefulness of a life lived in the natural energy of man, and know little of vital experience of the headship of Jesus Christ, yet all the while are scrupulously careful to arrive at absolute correctness of method in God's service. Many a time we have been told, "We agree with you in everything." Far from it! In reality we do not agree at all! We hope this book will not fall into the hands of those who wish to improve their work by improving their methods, without adjusting their relationship to the Lord; but we do hope it will have a message for the humble ones who have learned to live in the power of the Spirit and have no confidence in the flesh.
It is death to have a wineskin without wine, but it is loss to have wine without a wineskin. We must have the wineskin after we have the wine. Paul wrote the Ephesian Epistle, but he could also write the Corinthian Epistle; and Corinthians presents us with Ephesian truths in practical expression. Yes, the writer of Ephesians was also the writer of Corinthians! But why is it that the children of God have never had any serious contentions over Ephesian truths, but always over Corinthian truths? Because the sphere of Ephesians is the heavenlies, and its truths are purely spiritual, so if there is any diversity of opinion concerning them, no one feels it much; but Corinthian teachings are practical and touch the earthly sphere, so if there is the slightest difference of opinion, a reaction is felt at once. Yes, Corinthians is very practical! And it tests our obedience more than does Ephesians!
The danger, with those who know little about life and reality, is to emphasize mere outward correctness; but with those to whom life and reality are a matter of supreme importance, the temptation is to throw away the divine pattern of things, thinking it legal and technical. They feel that they have the greater and can therefore well dispense with the lesser. As a result, the more spiritual a man is, the freer he feels to do as he thinks fit. He considers that he himself has authority to decide on outward matters, and rather fancies that to ignore God's commands regarding them is an indication that he has been delivered from legality and is walking in the liberty of the Spirit. But God has not only revealed the truths that concern our inner life; He has also revealed the truths relating to the outward expression of that life. God prizes the inner reality, but He does not ignore its outward expression. God has given us Ephesians, Romans, and Colossians, but He has also given us Acts, the Epistles to Timothy, and the Epistles to the Corinthians. We may think it sufficient for God to instruct us through Romans, Ephesians, and Colossians as to our life in Christ, but He has considered it necessary to instruct us through Acts, Corinthians, and Timothy, how to do His work and how to organize His Church. God has left nothing to human imagination or human will. Man is afraid to use a thoughtless servant, but God does not care to use an over-thoughtful one; all He requires of man is simple obedience. "Who has become His counselor?" asked Paul (Rom. 11:34). Man would fain occupy the post, but God has no need of a counselor. It is not our place to suggest how we think divine work should be done, but rather to ask in everything, "What is the will of the Lord?"
The Pharisees cleansed the outside of the platter, but left the inside full of impurity. Our Lord rebuked them for setting so much store on outward things, and ignoring the inward; and many of God's people conclude from the Lord's rebuke that, providing we stress the inner side of spiritual truth, all is well. But God demands both inward and outward purity. To have the outer without the inner is spiritual death, but to have the inner without the outer is only spiritualized life. And spiritualization is not spirituality. Our Lord said, "These you should have done and not neglected the others" (Matt. 23:23). No matter how insignificant any divine command may seem, it is an expression of the will of God; therefore, we never dare treat it lightly. We cannot neglect the least of His commands with impunity. The importance of His requirements may vary, but everything that is of God has eternal purpose and eternal worth. Of course, the mere observance of outward forms of service has no spiritual value whatever. All spiritual truths, whether pertaining to the inner or the outer life, are liable to be legalized. Everything that is of God—whether outward or inward—if in the Spirit is life; if in the letter it is death. So the question is not whether it is outward or inward, but whether it is in the Spirit or in the letter. "The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6).
It is our desire to accept and proclaim the whole Word of God. We covet to be able to say with Paul, "I did not shrink from declaring to you all the counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). We seek to follow the leading of God's Spirit, but at the same time we seek to pay attention to the examples shown us in His Word. The leading of the Spirit is precious, but if there is no example in the Word, then it is easy to substitute our fallible thoughts and unfounded feelings for the Spirit's leading, drifting into error without realizing it. If one is not prepared to obey God's will in every direction, it is easy to do things contrary to His Word and still fancy one is being led of His Spirit. We emphasize the necessity of following both the leading of the Spirit and the examples of the Word, because by comparing our ways with the written Word we can discover the source of our leading. The Spirit's guidance will always harmonize with the Scriptures. God cannot lead a man one way in Acts and another way today. In externalities the leading may vary, but in principle it is always the same; for God's will is eternal, therefore changeless. God is the eternal God; He takes no cognizance of time, and His will and ways all bear the stamp of eternity. This being so, God could never act one way at one time and another way later on. Circumstances may differ and cases may differ, but in principle the will and ways of God are just the same today as they were in the days of the Acts.
God said to the Israelites, "Moses, because of your hardness of heart, allowed you to divorce your wives" (Matt. 19:8), but the Lord Jesus said, "What God has yoked together, let man not separate" (Matt. 19:6). Is there not a discrepancy here? No! "Moses, because of your hardness of heart, allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it has not been so" (Matt. 19:8). It is not that in the beginning it was permissible, and later it became forbidden, and still later became permissible again, as though God were a changeable God. No, the Lord said, "From the beginning it has not been so" showing that God's will had never altered. From the beginning right on until today it is just the same. Here is a most important principle. If we want to know the mind of God, we must look at His commands in Genesis and not look at His permissions later on, because every later permission has this explanation, "because of your hardness of heart." It is God's directive will we want to discover, not His permissive will. We want to see what God's purpose was from the beginning. We want to see things as they were when they proceeded in all their purity from the mind of God, not what they have become because of hardness of heart on the part of His people.
If we would understand the will of God concerning His Church, then we must not look to see how He led His people last year, or ten years ago, or a hundred years ago, but we must return to the beginning, to the "genesis" of the Church, to see what He said and did then. It is there we find the highest expression of His will. Acts is the "genesis" of the Church's history, and the Church in the time of Paul is the "genesis" of the Spirit's work. Conditions in the Church today are vastly different from what they were then, but these present conditions could never be our example, or our authoritative guide. We must return to the beginning. Only what God has set forth as our example in the beginning is the eternal will of God. It is the divine standard and our pattern for all time.
A word of explanation may be needed regarding the examples God has given us in His Word. Christianity is not only built upon precepts, but also upon examples. God has revealed His will, not only by giving orders, but by having certain things done in His Church, so that in the ages to come others might simply look at the pattern and know His will. God has not only directed His people by means of abstract principles and objective regulations, but by concrete examples and subjective experience. God does use precepts to teach His people, but one of His chief methods of instruction is through history. God tells us how others knew and did His will, so that we, by looking at their lives, may not only know His will, but see how to do it too. He worked in their lives, producing in them what He Himself desired, and He bids us look at them, so that we may know what He is after.
Shall we, then, say that because God has not commanded a certain thing we need not do it? If we have seen His dealings with men in days past, if we have seen how He led His people and built up His Church, can we still plead ignorance of His will? Is it necessary for a child to be told explicitly how to do everything? Must each item be separately mentioned of things permissible and not permissible? Are there not many things he can learn simply by watching his parents or his elder brothers and sisters? We learn more readily by what we see than by what we hear, and the impression upon us is deeper. That is why God has given us so much history in the Old Testament, and the Acts of the Apostles in the New. He knows we learn more easily by example than by precept. Examples have greater value than precepts, because precepts are abstract, while examples are precepts carried into effect. By looking at them, we not only know what God's precepts are, but we have a tangible demonstration of their outworking. If we try to eliminate examples from Christianity and leave only its precepts, then we have not much left. Precepts have their place, but examples have no less important a place, though obviously conformity to the divine pattern in outward things is mere formality if there is no correspondence in inner life.
In closing, may I stress the fact that this is not a book on missionary methods. Methods are not to be despised, but in God's service what matters most is the man, not his methods. Unless the man is right, right methods will be of no use to him or to his work. Carnal methods are suited to carnal men, and spiritual methods to spiritual men. For carnal men to employ spiritual methods will only result in confusion and failure. This book is intended for those who, having learned something of the cross, know the corruption of human nature, and seek to walk, not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. Its object is to help those who acknowledge the lordship of Christ in all things, and are seeking to serve Him in the way of His own appointing, not of their choosing. To put it in other words, it is written for those who are already in the good of Ephesian truths, so that they may know how to express their service along Corinthian lines. May none of my readers use this book as a basis for external adjustments in their work, without letting the cross deal drastically with their natural life.
In God's work everything depends upon the kind of worker sent out and the kind of convert produced. On the part of the convert, a real Holy Spirit new birth is essential, and a vital relationship with God. On the part of the worker, besides personal holiness and enduement for service, it is essential that he have an experimental knowledge of the meaning of committal to God and faith in His sovereign providence. Otherwise, no matter how scriptural the methods employed, the result will be emptiness and defeat.
To the Lord and to His people I commend this book, with the prayer that He may use it for His glory, as He sees fit.